Growing up near Three Rivers, Jon Burke figured out in a physics class wind tunnel that the three-prop windmill design was most efficient. In chemistry, he built an anaerobic digester and flared gas in class.
“I’m an engineer by birth,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed building, construction, renewable energy.”
That’s why he earned degrees in theology at Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, Md.
“The nexus between my vocation and my training is I’ve always had a love for the Earth and caring for it,” Burke explains. “My theological training just enhanced that.
“I feel strongly that we’re here for a reason and it’s our duty to manage the planet we call home carefully and with respect.”
These days, Burke is helping to manage the part of the planet called South Bend, his home after 30 years in Maryland and a few months back in Michigan.
He started in September 2010 as the city’s first energy director, a new position paid for with federal stimulus money for two years. Burke bought a condominium and moved to South Bend in July 2010, before he got the job.
“I started looking in a wider circle and saw there were a lot more things that fit my vocational experience in this area,” he says. “When you’re passionate about what you do, people see that. I think it sometimes speaks more than a résumé.”
The Maryland résumé includes designing and building homes at his own construction company; overseeing buildings for a large private school network; and managing a large facility where he reduced energy consumption 42 percent in 3½ years.
Burke brings both the passion and the skills to the South Bend work, which builds on the findings of a 50-person Green Ribbon Commission the city established in 2009.
“They set out a number of initiatives they wanted the energy office to pursue,” he says. “I promote energy savings throughout the city, sustainability initiatives. I’m working on renewable energy.”
Among other things, Burke is writing a strategic energy plan, SEE, with three pillars - Security, Economics and Environment - applying to vehicles as well as buildings.
The Security part involves freedom from dependence on oil-producing countries.
“All our energy policy has to be viewed through that lens,” says Burke, who hopes to complete the plan this year. “Most cities don’t have a policy that looks at those things in detail and sets an overall direction.”
Burke says the environment for such efforts is very different from what he saw on the East Coast - partly because utilities there are not regulated monopolies and competition is keen, partly because costs here are low.
“It’s been an eye-opener,” he says. “Energy here in the Midwest has been so cheap for so long, it’s largely taken for granted. On the East and West coasts, they pay two or three times as much for electricity.”
He expects electricity costs in Indiana will double in the next eight years because of environmental regulations, leveling the key element of low energy costs that has helped recruit industry to the area.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them in the Midwest or we’re going to lose,” he says. “I just see opportunity everywhere.”
Tribune Business Weekly